Guest Post: Why I love Mother’s Day

A guest post by my wife Bethan:

Mother’s Day is one of those funny things that seems to have been through some sort of cultural metamorphosis so that it is now means something it was never originally intended to – a celebration of mothers. Usually, such misuse of significant days irks me, but as a mummy, I’m willing to run with this one!

Cuddles with MummyWhen our first baby boy was born, I struggled to come to terms with my new role as a stay-at-home mum. I had only 9 months previously finished my Oxford degree, and had only been married just over a year. My whole life I had heard ‘get an education, a degree, experience for your CV and the world can be your oyster – all opportunities are equal now for men and women’. And then I had a baby. And it wasn’t. It felt like everyone else was carrying on with their lives, but mine was now dictated by this very small person who slept (or didn’t) when he felt like it, ate when he felt like it and was sick everywhere when he felt like it. For a task-focused person who loved to achieve, it was really difficult when the only task I set myself in the day was to get dressed and I often failed in even that!  I became bitter against my husband and my friends who still went to work, and angry at the system that had told me that this didn’t have to be my life – because I didn’t want it to be, but believed (and still do) that motherhood is a vocation and a ministry that God called me into when he blessed me with children (not that it really felt like a blessing at the time).

So, when we reached my first Mother’s Day (nearly a year after our first child was born) I was determined that it should be used as a day to celebrate what I did. To acknowledge all the things I had sacrificed and to thank me for all the dreams and ambitions (and full night’s sleep) that I had given up. Thankfully, by the grace of God, my heart has been (and still is being!) changed, and as we approach my fourth Mother’s Day I love it for quite a different reason.

Rachel Jankovic writes in her marvellous book ‘Fit to Burst’:

“…there is a difference between giving something up and having it taken from you. If you still count the things you lost with resentment, then you did not give them. You need to let go of those things that you no longer have. Lay them down. If you find yourself in bed at night tallying what has been lost to you, you need to let go of that list. Lay them down. Give them freely. Don’t count them as stolen.”

The Holy Spirit used those words to hit like a double-decker bus. Never mind tallying in bed at night – every time my friends invited me out and I couldn’t go, every time our house felt too small, every time someone got a new job, every time anything happened that could possibly cause me to count my loss, I resented both my husband and my baby. I hadn’t made any sacrifices at all. I was having my old life ripped from my hands, whilst I held on kicking and screaming and all the while making sure everyone knew what an overwhelming sacrifice being a stay-at-home mum was.

It hasn’t been an overnight transformation – but, thank God, the Holy Spirit has been working to convict and transform me. Yes, I’m a sinner, and I sometimes still revert to my old way of thinking when our house seems too small, or when friends start getting mortgages, or when we can’t afford the car that would be perfect for our growing family. But, at least it’s no longer the norm. When people pass comment about the ‘luxury’ of being a stay-at-home mum, or how it’s a ‘lifestyle choice’ I no longer want to strangle them (at least usually – on some of the more difficult days I still might!).

And so this, finally, brings me to my actual point – why I love Mother’s Day. Not only does it give me a marker, a time, to reflect on the work God has done in my heart and to thank Him for that, but what an amazing opportunity to dwell on the ultimate sacrifice – that of Christ. These well-known verses from Philippians 2 sum up, for me, what we should be remembering and celebrating on Mother’s Day:

“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2: 3-8, ESVUK)

Fellow mamas, what an awesome calling we have. The sacrifice that Christ made, for us, we are called to emulate for our children. Of course we were never equal to God and we can’t save them, but I suspect that, in society’s eyes, we have taken on one of the lowliest roles there is and, rather than humbling ourselves, have humiliated ourselves. But, we are to consider our children more significant than ourselves – and they certainly provide ample opportunity for us to do this any hour of the day or night! We are not to look only to our own interests, but also to the interests of our children. You know that phrase ‘If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy’ – these verses from Scripture show this to be totally ridiculous. I certainly don’t get the impression from reading the Bible that Jesus delighted in his mission to the cross. But despite the pain and suffering, He didn’t say in the Garden of Gethsemane, ‘Actually, Lord, I think that I need to be happy for your children to be happy, and the cross doesn’t make me happy so I think I’ll try something different.’ The consequences of that don’t bear thinking about.

Jesus went to the cross for us. He gave us the ultimate example in sacrifice. Because of His pain and suffering, we can live new lives in Christ Jesus. Just maybe, if we can, as mums, follow this example we can bring some good to the lives of our children. We can point them to the ultimate sacrifice through our sacrifice. We can show them a shadow of the truest love in that we show them true love by laying down our lives for them. What a privilege. But it is only made possible because of Christ. We can only know this because of what He did. So yes, I love a handmade card and a cup of tea in bed, but let’s not forget to use Mother’s Day as an opportunity to remember the sacrifice Christ made for us, and to ask for His help in pointing our children to that through the way we love them and lay down our lives for them.

The Christmas We Get We Deserve?

One of the many strange cultural phenomena of the Christmas season is the fact that at this time of year, we collectively take a body of music off the shelf, dust it off and listen to it constantly for a few weeks before returning it once again to its resting place. While I could be talking of Christmas carols in the church, I am of course referring to its equivalent in wider culture – ‘Christmas songs’.  From Wizzard to Chris de Burgh, Cliff Richard to Slade, the sound of these songs is enough to awaken past memories of Christmas in anyone’s heart. I’m not sure how these songs came to form such a canon, only that the barrier for entry is high and many attempts have fallen by the wayside.

Why this preamble? Well, in amongst these songs is a classic that is certainly counted as canonical in the Christmas songbook, but whose words have stuck out to me as I’ve listened over the past few years.  ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’, first recorded by Greg Lake in 1974, is probably most easily recognised for the instrumental riff between verses, which is actually taken from the Troika section of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite (Yes, I did look that up on Wikipedia). The lyrics tell of a man who once had faith in an ideal of Christmas, but grew disillusioned with it as he got older. He weaves together ideas of Father Christmas and Jesus (‘the Israelite’, presumably because it rhymes with ‘Silent Night’) as though part of the same mythical package – which perhaps for many people today is the case.

However, there is one particular line that really grabbed my attention. Right at the end of the song, he sings,

Hallelujah, Noel, be it Heaven or Hell,
The Christmas we get we deserve.

There are a couple of thoughts that come to mind when hearing the words ‘the Christmas we get we deserve’. The first is ‘yes we do’ and the second is ‘no we don’t’. Allow me to explain.

The sense in which we do get the Christmas we deserve is that the way in which we celebrate Christmas will very often dictate our experience of it. If you look to Christmas as simply an exercise in getting more stuff, then you’ll probably end up dissatisfied as you won’t necessarily get everything on your Christmas list – and even if you do, you may then think ‘Oh, I wish I’d put that on my list as well, then I’d have got that too…’ and so on. A materialist Christmas will most likely end up being materially unsatisfying.

Alternatively, you may see Christmas as an opportunity for a proper knees-up, whether having a few too many at the office Christmas party, overdoing the sherry after Christmas dinner or going for a big night out on Christmas Eve. Any one of these may result in having a great time – but you’ll probably end up with the same hangover as always the next morning.

It’s noticeable in a lot of advertising at Christmas that there is a huge unspoken question that is unanswered in our present cultural conversation, which is ‘What is Christmas actually for?’ Is it for shopping? For family? For the music? All of those things are all well and good as elements of what Christmas involves, but throughout our celebrations there is another story that is being told, that surfaces in various places and which hints at a deeper meaning.

On one level, this meaning is staring us in the face the whole time. I mean, it is called ‘Christmas’ after all. Even the ‘secular’ canon of songs cannot entirely escape from this story, whether in ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’ or ‘Little Drummer Boy’, as well as the song mentioned above.  I am of course referring to Christmas as the celebration of the birth of a small child, nearly 2,000 years ago, in a small town in the Middle East under Roman occupation, to a young woman recently married to a man who is not the father of her child. It’s a long way from the manger of Bethlehem to the tinsel and noise of Christmas celebrations today. My point here, however, is that it is at this level of understanding that we come to find that we really don’t get the Christmas we deserve…

At the heart of the Christmas story is a gift. Not one wrapped in paper and sellotape, but one that comes in flesh and blood. Not a gift that will be forgotten about by the time the New Year comes around, but one that irrevocably changed the course of human history.  Because the gift that we’re talking about here is not one that we would have dared to put on our Christmas list, one that could scarcely be conceived of in its mind-blowing implications. The gift is not simply the child Himself – there were many other children born as well as Jesus on that night – but in who He is: Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’. The gift God gives us at Christmas is none other than Himself, come to us not with awesome spectacle (although choirs of angels herald His arrival) or temporal power (although the Magi bowed the knee in homage), but in poverty, humility and vulnerability.

But back to the matter at hand – if this gift is so great, then perhaps the recipients are pretty wonderful themselves and thus deserving of the gift? Not a bit of it. In fact, the gift of Immanuel was only necessary precisely because we are so utterly undeserving of His coming to us. If we had been able to sort ourselves out, to figure out what life was really about – to love and know the God who loves and knows us, then there would have been no need for Him to come.  But the glorious truth of Christmas is that even though we don’t deserve it, the gift is given nonetheless.

And what does this gift mean? Not simply that God is with us to show us what He is like (incredible as this is), not only to teach us true wisdom (though he did that), but ultimately to make possible peace and reconciliation with the God we have rejected, which can be experienced both now and forever. How is this made possible? By Jesus being truly ‘God with us’ by coming alongside us, taking on the burden of our sin and bearing the cross that should have been our own, dying the death that we should have died, yet conquering all by rising from death’s clutches three days later. The gift we celebrate at Christmas cannot be separated by the still greater gift that we remember at Easter.

Where does this leave us then? Perhaps the story told above is just another superstition to be cast aside along with Father Christmas, as Greg Lake does in the song. Perhaps the karma-like sentiment of the final line is the best we can hope for in a cold and unfeeling universe. But the whisper of that older story, hidden away in much of our Christmas celebrations, is that this is not the final answer, that grace is a deeper truth than karma and that despite everything, Christmas means a gift, freely offered, that is greater than we could possibly have hoped for. A gift that gives hope in the darkness of winter, that even in the midst of tragedy and suffering, He is with us still.

The great irony of Greg Lake’s song is that by lumping Father Christmas and Jesus together, he blurs the great difference between the message that each gives. While Old Saint Nick gives according to whether we’ve been ‘naughty or nice’ (i.e. we get what we deserve), Jesus offers grace, hope and peace to all, no matter what we’ve done, even though we don’t deserve it.

That’s what I’ll be celebrating this Christmas.

Some Advent Thoughts

Well, December is upon us and the clamour and chaos of Christmas preparations grows ever louder, however allow me to ask you to tarry a moment to consider the season that we currently find ourselves in – Advent.

To be honest, I’d imagine that most Christians have little idea what this period of ‘Advent’ is actually about, let alone those outside the church – I certainly didn’t until I started attending an Anglican church more regularly. For the uninitiated, Advent is a season in the church calendar that lasts from the fourth Sunday before Christmas until Christmas Eve.  The name ‘Advent’ comes from the Latin word ‘adventus’ which means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’.  As such, the season has a twin focus – firstly on the first coming of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas and secondly thinking ahead to Jesus’ Second Coming, which didn’t happen last year, despite the best efforts of Harold Camping to predict it thus.  If you’re looking for more detail about Advent, you can have a look here and here.  However, I don’t so much want to focus on the details of how we mark Advent, but to offer a few thoughts on why we should perhaps give it a bit more attention.

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A few thoughts on General Synod’s (narrow) rejection of the Women Bishops Measure

What follows is not so much any kind of a coherent response to today’s debate and vote, but more a collection of assorted thoughts and questions that I’ve had as I’ve followed this issue over the last few days.  If I’ve misrepresented positions at all, over-generalised or otherwise made an unhelpful intrusion into what is a painfully divisive debate, then do please accept my apologies.
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There was a lot of talk today in Synod about the need for better provision for those opposed to women bishops, but is there ever going to be sufficient accommodation that satisfies those against the change? I just can’t see a situation whereby any compromise will be sustainable long term.

For the Anglo-Catholics opposed, the chief issue (and I’m no expert) appears to be about the ‘spiritual chain of command’ and thus an unwillingness to be subject to a female bishop – but if it comes to having a woman as Archbishop then surely that puts an end to any such provision? Or am I misunderstanding their position? Either way, when the change eventually does happen, I imagine many will join the Ordinariate.
For conservative evangelicals opposed, the main issue is the interpretation of the various relevant NT passages. But note that these passages are all about women in church leadership full stop – for me I don’t see any tenable position where someone could accept women’s ordination, but not accept women bishops, as there is no distinction in the NT between local church leadership and that of wider systems of church governance (although open to correction on that point).
There are doubtless many among those in the House of Laity who opposed the change are genuinely keen to reach a compromise that both sides can agree on – however improbably that may or may not be – however, it does make me wonder whether there are others for whom no amount of ‘provision’ is enough, as they are simply opposed to women bishops on principle and will vote against any measure that would bring that closer to reality.  Those who wish to see the continued unity of the Anglican church will hope that the former outnumber the latter in this instance.

I suppose one solution would be to do away with bishops altogether in the Church of England as that would at least solve the inequality problem! I don’t think that’s likely though…

My hope is that there will be a move to reach a solution sooner rather than later and bring the different parties together to hammer out an amendment that all sides can agree on – although I presume that is what has been going on already and it hasn’t worked out yet.
It’s both interesting and sad to see the way that the Church of England is going to be dragged through the mud over this in the media and in public perception, and if the current status quo continues then the clamour for disestablishment could grow and grow.  It’s interesting to read the outrage of so many at a decision by an organisation of which they are not part – the sense that the Church of England should represent the values of wider society has been evident in much of the initial reaction.
While my own position on the question of disestablishment is only partially-formed at present, I am far from persuaded that it would necessarily be a bad thing.  The fact that people are now calling for Parliament to intervene and force Synod to pass the legislation (as I read one vicar in favour of the change demand earlier) is not exactly indicative of a healthy model of church-state relations.

Overall, however, today is not a good day for the Church of England.  Those in favour of correcting the glaring inconsistency that allows for women to become vicars but not bishops will understandably be deeply frustrated and saddened by today’s vote, especially as it was so close.  Those who opposed the change will be relieved that the vote went their way, but it is a hollow victory as the Church’s deep division on this issue has been exposed once again.  We can only pray that it won’t take another 10 years before an acceptable compromise position can be reached.

I would, however, like to make one point regarding an argument that has been put forth by a number of people both within and without the Church in the last few days, which is the one that broadly goes along the lines of ‘society at large will find anything but a ‘yes’ vote absurd and offensive, therefore we should vote ‘yes’ to maintain our social credibility’.  I admit that there is an emotional force to this argument and the Church is really going to be put through the mill over this in the coming days, with a lot of bad press and a great deal of ill-feeling generated towards the Church.  However, that simply cannot be a decisive argument on such an important issue.  We are not called to reflect society back at itself, but to show God’s love and grace revealed in the Gospel to a world that has rejected Him. Whenever those in favour of women bishops stray from theological reasoning to this more populist approach, they do themselves a disservice.  While we all want to be liked and admired, it is more important to be faithful to the path God is leading us on.  There are plenty of other things that we believe in that society as a whole finds implausible and ridiculous, not least the Resurrection itself.  Appeals to opinion polls and seeking to avoid a social media firestorm is no substitute for the deep theological reflection that is required.

To finish up, my hope is that both sides can allow God to help them to respond with grace and love even in the midst of frustration and mistrust, that a genuine dialogue and reconciliation process can take place and that a properly workable solution can be found that somehow, by God’s grace, will be acceptable to all sides who are willing to work together for it.

Recommended posts I’ve read today:

Peter Ould’s reflection is informative as ever and well worth reading.

Tanya Marlow’s piece from yesterday, and thus before the debate, is powerful, moving and gets to the heart of where quite a few people seem to be at on this.

‘Persons and Individuals’ – Reflections on Rowan Williams’ Theos Lecture

Last week I had the joy of attending the 5th Annual Theos Lecture in Westminster Central Hall, given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, on the topic of ‘The Person and The Individual’.  I must admit, after the first few minutes, I wasn’t entirely clear at all what he was talking about, however as time went on things started to take shape and make sense, leaving me with lots of swirling thoughts to ponder after he finished… so much so that I’ve awoken from blogging slumber to put some of those thoughts down.  As many will be aware, Williams’ style is far from being the most, ah, accessible, shall we say?  However, I’ll do my best to outline his argument as I understand it.

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The College Prayer

Yesterday I had my induction onto the MA in Theology, Politics and Faith-Based Organisations at King’s College, London, which is very exciting and I hope my blogging over the next two years will be enriched by the many meaty ideas that I will be chewing over in the course of my studies.

I was struck, however, by the words of the King’s College Prayer quoted by the Dean in his introductory remarks and include the prayer below, as I think it’s rather brilliant:

“ALMIGHTY God,
the Fountain of Wisdom and the Giver of every perfect gift;
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy;
Send down, we beseech you, your blessing upon this College,
and prosper the designs of its founders and benefactors. Enable us, by your grace,
faithfully to discharge the duties of our several stations,
remembering the strict and solemn account
which we must one day give before the judgement-seat of Christ.
More particularly we pray, that the seeds of Learning, Virtue and Religion, here sown, may bring forth fruit abundantly to your glory and the benefit of our fellow creatures.
These and all other blessings, for them and for us,
we humbly ask in the name and through the mediation
of Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord. Amen.”

Top 10 Greatest Power Ballads of All Time

I’ll admit it, I’m an unashamed and unabashed fan of that most majestic of musical genres – the power ballad.  This may not be a particularly cutting-edge passion of mine, but I urge you, nay I dare you, to listen to some of the tunes listed below and not feel at least a smidgen of the awesomeness contained therein.

For the uninitiated, Wikipedia defines a power ballad simply as “a ballad performed in a rock music style,” while elsewhere noting that “power ballads came into existence in the early 1970s, when rock stars attempted to convey profound messages to audiences.”  These definitions are clearly only scratching the surface of the emotional power of these titanic songs.  Urbandictionary.com is only slightly more helpful, stating that it is “a form of heavy metal music in which the listener is tempted to pump their fist into the air repeatedly synchronized with the emotional impact said song inflicts upon the listener.” (I also refer you to the 3rd definition on that page, which I’m too prudish to quote here.)  While I find the heavy metal description inaccurate, this does at least get more to the way in which these totems of tunecraft can stir the emotions and move you to increasingly unfashionable dance moves.

Power Tweeting

For me, a power ballad is a song, most commonly from the 80s, that combines the standard elements of a rock song (electric guitars, drums, charismatic lead vocalist) with lyrics that tell a story that stirs the emotions, often accompanied by a soaring chorus, epic guitar solos and key changes that take your breath away, evoking images of gravity-defying mullets and fashion-defying shoulder pads.  Other than that, it’s hard to pin it down further than to say that when know a power ballad when you hear one (which doesn’t make it highly contestable at all!).  My own love of power ballads blossomed at university, dancing along to some Bon Jovi in the Union, brooding angstfully in my room in halls and, in an unforgettable moment, duetting to ‘(Everything I Do), I Do It For You‘ with Mr Steve Causley in a karaoke bar in Beijing. ‘Epic’ doesn’t even come close.
You can listen to my painstakingly-crafted Power Ballads playlist on Spotify here. (It’s not exhaustive, but nonetheless hits most of my personal favourite specimens of songsmithery.)

But enough of all this faff! Let’s get down to this ridiculously tricky and highly contentious business of my top 10 Power Ballads of all time.  Happy to field outraged disagreements in the comments, but let’s keep this civil shall we?

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